In recent years, casual games have become an increasingly popular and important part of the videogame landscape. Proponents argue that casual games both open up new audiences for games and make new styles of games possible, but the genre has largely floundered in copycat titles.
One reason for this is a lack of imagination about what casual might mean. I propose an alternative: casual games that players use and toss aside -- one play stands, serendipitous encounters never to be seen again.
What Is A Casual Game?
According to the IGDA Casual Games white paper, casual games are “games that generally involve less complicated game controls and overall complexity in terms of gameplay or investment required to get through game.” The group contrasts casual games with “hardcore” or “core” or “traditional” games -- games “developed for and delivered on a dedicated game console” that “involve more complicated game controls and overall complexity in terms of gameplay or investment required to get through game.”
The whitepaper’s authors admit that “the typical casual gamer is hard to define”, but suggests that the name characterizes “gamers who play games for enjoyment and relaxation.” Casual games are less complex than core games and require lower commitment to both title and medium.
We might summarize the industry’s conception of casual games along two axes: design considerations and player resources. Because casual gamers don’t play many games, or don’t play them very often, they are unfamiliar with the complex conventions that might feel second nature to hardcore gamers.
These games attempt to minimize complexity and investment in player time, money, and control mastery. Casual games sport designs and controls of reduced complexity that take little time to learn and to play, that come at modest cost and are easy to purchase. Casual games typically offer short gameplay sessions, come at a lower cost than hardcore games, and allow play on more ordinary devices like personal computers and mobile phones.
The typical design values of casual games strongly resemble the early coin-op industry. Consider controls. Nolan Bushnell’s cabinet version Spacewar!, which he called Computer Space didn’t sell well. One reason for its failure was complexity. As Bushnell explains, “You had to read the instructions before you could play, people didn’t want to read instructions.”1 Pong fixed the problem. Bushnell: “To be successful, I had to come up with a game people already knew how to play; something so simple that any drunk in any bar could play.” The Pong cabinet features one instruction: “Avoid missing ball for high score.”
One can easily draw a connection between the taverngoing Pong player and the after-bedtime Bejeweled player. The IGDA SIG explicitly recommends mouse-only control for casual games (“The interaction between the user and the game should be limited to the computer mouse”). A mouse is something every computer user owns and knows how to use. Simple controls on existing equipment seem to be well-addressed design strategies in casual games.
As for money, the business model for coin-op games is somewhat different from that of casual games. When designing games for the bar or arcade, developers aimed for short play sessions, usually around two to three minutes. Such tactics maximized “coin drop,” the cash the game could acquire in a fixed amount of time. Coin-op publishers looked to sell a large number of lower priced plays of the same game, and to rely on repeat purchases of that game. This dynamic naturally encouraged a particular kind of competitiveness: players who get better at the game can play longer for less money, effectively reducing the publisher’s incremental profit while maximizing the value of player’s own leisure dollar.
In their heyday, coin-op games were easy to access—they were found in bars and convenience stores and laundromats, places one would go regularly for reasons other than videogame play. Coin-op games were also low cost, usually just a single coin. Most casual games are purchased from online portals. Players download, try, and then purchase online, usually for US$20 or less. There’s no doubt that online purchasing offers easy access, one of the industry’s design values. But is $20 really low cost? While $20 is one-half to one-third the price of contemporary console games, it’s still a considerable figure for a discretionary purchase.
But the most contradictory of these three player resources is time. A common design philosophy for casual games is “easy to learn, hard to master.” Casual games are supposed respect the value of their players’ time, making it easier to learn to play the game. But the notion of mastery raises doubt about low commitment in casual games. Individual casual game sessions often do require only short amounts of time: a round of Solitaire or Tetris or Bejeweled might take less than five minutes. But the maxim “easy to learn, hard to master” reveals that casual games actually demand significant total play time.
Players are expected to string short game sessions together, either at once or over long periods, to maximize performance. A casual games proponent might argue that the player might choose not to master the game, but rather just to play short sessions early in the title’s progression (“games you can play for five minutes or five hours”). But the business of casual games belies such argument: for one part, the typical cost of a downloadable game suggests that medium- to long-term player commitment is required to get value from a purchase; and for another part, downloadable games’ 1-2% conversion on try-before-you-buy purchases suggests that the vast majority of players are satisfied with the gameplay experience of the trial anyway. Mastery demands high, not low, commitment.
1 Scott Cohen, Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983)
Kinds Of Casualness
High commitment and long total time investment seem to contradict the very idea of casual games. The IGDA whitepaper authors even admit that “casual” is a somewhat inappropriate appelation: “Without a doubt, the term ‘casual games’ is sometimes an awkward and ill-fitting term... the term ‘casual’ doesn’t accurately depict that these games can be quite addictive, often delivering hours of entertainment similar to that provided by more traditional console games.” What, then, is the true meaning of casual in casual games?
I’d suggest that the genre’s current conception of “casualness” suggests informality. If core or hardcore games are “formal” in the sense that they require adherence to complex gameplay and social conventions, then casual games are “informal” in the sense that they do not require such strict adherence. Informality is a kind of “dressing down” of an otherwise more “proper” gaming practice. But informality also underscores the likelihood of regular, repetitive engagement with that practice. This is the casual of casual dress or casual Friday, both of which articulate a respite from the formality of business or social attire and mannerisms. Casual Friday is a repetitive, habitual casualness: come as you are, but expect to do it every week.
Applied to games, casual as informality characterizes the notions of pick-up play common in casual games while still calling for repetition and mastery. This is why casual games can value both short session duration and high replayability or addictiveness. Casual games may allow short session play time, but they demand high total playtime, and therefore high total time commitment on the part of the player. Low commitment represents the primary unexplored design space in the casual games market.
To understand what other design opportunities might exist for casual games, or what other kinds of games this sector of the industry may have ignored, it is worth asking what other meanings the term casual possesses in ordinary parlance, outside the domain of videogames.
Casual as Indifferent
We sometimes casual to refer to a lack of concern, or even a feeling of indifference. In this sense, casual conjures notions of apathy, insouciance, and nonchalance.
Casual as Spontaneous
We also use casual to refer to spontaneity or offhandedness. In this sense, casual raises notions of unpremeditated action, doing something off-the-cuff.
Casual as Fleeting
We also sometimes use casual to refer to something short-lived and momentary, something superficial, like a temporary or part-time commitment, or an irregular activity.
These senses of casual all contain properties of freedom, superficiality, and even flippancy. Such properties correspond well with the notion of low commitment left unexplored in casual games. If Casual Friday is the metaphor that drives casual games as we know them now, then Casual Sex might offer a metaphor to summarize the field’s unexplored territory. If casual games (as in Friday) focus on simplicity and short individual play sessions that contribute to long-term mastery and repetition, then casual games (as in sex) focus on simplicity and short play that might not ever be repeated—or even remembered.
Newsgames are one possible example of such games. Newsgames are videogames created in response to specific, real-world events that recount or comment upon them; they are the videogame equivalent of editorial cartoons. Gonzalo Frasca launched the concept on Newsgaming.com with an example, September 12: A Toy World, a commentary about Western retaliation, in particular the U.S. response to September 11, 2001.
September 12 was not necessarily intended to be played over and over again. The game’s mechanics reveal its commentary through revelation rather than mastery. Still, September 12 is not as fleeting as it might be; it is loosely coupled to the events it comments upon. The game was released in October 2003, so timeliness wasn’t its guiding design principle, and admittedly the game more attention and response as a political game than as a newsgame. The game refers to an entire era of U.S. foreign policy.
Other newsgames use the genre’s coupling to current events to create more specific, more disposable experiences.
Consider Zidane Head-Butt, a very simple game created and released less than a day after Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt at the 2006 World Cup final. The game is crude at best, its gameplay little more than a modification of whack-a-mole, wherein the player controls Zidane and clicks the mouse to headbutt an endless barrage of Marco Materazzis.
The game’s sole, simple mechanic offers no novel experience. It’s yet another skinned Whack-a-Mole. The game even lacks a score tally. As such, Zidane Head Butt stands mostly as a curiosity, a media gimmick released quickly enough to capitalize on the hubbub surrounding the event itself.
But rather than reject the game’s significance based on its crude implementation or simplistic conception, we should celebrate Zidane Head Butt precisely for its fleeting nature. This is not a game one attempts to master -- indeed it is probably not even a game one plays a second time. By maximizing curiosity, the game successfully adheres to the casual game design value of very low time commitment. This is a game one plays once, then forgets about forever -- but that one forgets without gaining much meaningful insight about the event it recreates.
September 12 is too loosely coupled to the events it editorializes to become fleeting in the way a casual (as in sex) game might do, but it offers meaningful commentary on the events in question. Conversely, Zidane Head-Butt is too trivial to offer any commentary whatsoever, but it is highly disposable. Other newsgames have attempted to combine these two virtues.
Airport Security might be such a one, created by my studio Persuasive Games shortly after the fall 2006 ban on liquids in carry-ons. The gameplay is simple, like the other examples discussed above: the player takes the role of a U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent, who must work under satirically overstated conditions of constantly changing security rules. The player might be asked to remove every passenger’s pants, or to confiscate hummus or pressurized cheese.
With Airport Security, we tried to strike a convincing balance between political commentary and promiscuous play. When newspaper readers take in a traditional editorial cartoon, they may linger on it for a few minutes, enjoying its satire or disputing its biting commentary. But soon enough, they turn the page, the cartoon left to be forgotten forever. This type of casual experience corresponds much more strongly with low complexity time commitment first proposed above: the player not only plays the game for only a few minutes (the game seems designed coin-op style, to enforce a loss in three minutes time or less), but he also leaves the play experience having consumed a legitimate commentary on the relationship between arbitrary rule changes and airport security.
Newsgames are just one example of casual games (as in sex); surely there are more games that might rescue the very genre from its noisy doldrums.
Most game developers are “core gamers”, well versed in the complex logics of resource allocation. We tend to privilege simplicity and emergence in games, favoring sophisticated experiences that create new challenges each time we play. And perhaps one well-balanced, mastery-style casual game is less financially risky than many throwaway experiences. But such an attitude ignores the pleasures of the fleeting, the transitory, the impermanent. Casual games, perhaps, can do more by doing less.